tv Tavis Smiley PBS December 24, 2010 12:00pm-12:30pm EST
tavis: good evening from los angeles. 2010 has been a good year for female authors, especially nonfiction. conversations with two of this year's best. rebecca skloot and "the immortal life of henriettisabel wilkerso. isabel wilkerson is the first african-american woman to win the first prize for journalism and wrote "the warmth of other suns". we are glad you are joining us. >> all i know is his name is james, and he needs extra help with his reading. >> i am james. >> yes. >> to everyone making a difference -- >> thank you.
>> you help us all live better. >> nationwide insurance supports tavis smiley. with every question and every answer, nationwide insurance is proud to join tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment, one conversation at a time. nationwide is on your side. >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. [captioning made possible by kcet public television] tavis: rebecca skloot is an award winning science writer. she has "the immortal life of henrietta lacks". good to have you on this program. >> good to be here.
tavis: i travel and i am a pretty observant person. i have noticed on airplanes, on trains, in waiting rooms, i have seen so many people reading this book. the first thing that got my attention, i noticed a lot of black woman who are coming in contact with you in this book. that is what got my attention. what is the story? i had heard the name before but did not know the story. i knew we had to talk. i see so many people connecting with what is in this book and that is important. so many times we see black woman fall behind in health care and health treatment. when i got a chance to get the book, it is rare that i see a book where the cover willie does tell you what the story is. a great design on this cover. but this cover-up. want to read from it.
-- i want to read from it. doctor took -- doctors to occur -- took her cells adnd they never died. her children found out in their lives would never be the same. that would make you want to read this book. i do not know what does. tell me more about her. >> she was a poor african- american tobacco virginia and cervical cancer. -- tobacco farmer in virginia who got cervical cancer. he sent tissue to george guy and he had been trying to grow cells. her cells have never died.
they grew in laboratories around the world. she died six months after the sample. never knowing they had been grown. tavis: the growing of these cells for all these years has meant what to cancer research into the industry? >> the list is amazing and goes on. there were the first cancer cells grown so they could use them to study what cancer was, how did it survive and spread. there were also used to develop the polio vaccine. there were the first-ever clones and her jeans were the first ever mapped. g -- genes were among the first ever mapped. tavis: how is that allowed to
happen legally? were they could put something out of your body and a multi million dollar industry is born as a result. you and your family scene of that? >> it depends on the time period. we did not have the concept of informed consent. this is something they were doing to people all over the world and taking samples from anyone who came into the hospital. it was standard practice and they had no idea in the 1950's they could look inside those cells and learn about her family. gerothey were given away and it was later they became commercialized. it is now illegal for doctors and researchers to take a sample for research without telling you. the samples will leave behind in hospitals, biopsies, blood tests, various things, we sign forms that said you can dispose of them any way you see fit or
use them in research as long as the name is not attached and the researchers did not have contact with you. they go in these biobanks and it does not require permission. >> i was itavis: i was in for s. these forms that -- and they give you a mountain of these things -- i know some people who were anal and i tried to read it as best as i can and sign it. we are assigning stuff away when we go into the hospital that we are not attuned to? >> people cannot read the forms. often, there is a line in there that says something about it. there is a lot of debate going on what those forms will say. a ranges from hospital to hospital. you may go one place and it says you can do what you want with my tissues and another one will give you a book saying this is what tissue research does and this is what we do.
there are no guidelines. it is up to the place. people do not read them.. and if they do, there is not enough information. people didn't read them for various reasons. what do i do of they say no, will not do surgery? there is a lot of issues about how to deal with that. tavis: there is a depressing story about her family members finding themselves in need of an without health care, never mind all the millions that have been made and generated in this industry because of their ancestor's cells. >> that is one of the hardest things. a lot of them cannot inf -- afford health insurance. what can we get to access? and the money as well.
you can go online and buy them. hela cells. the name is her initials. anyone can buy them for about $200. you can get a bottle and products up to $10,000. the family is struggling. they look and say, shouldn't some of that come to the family? there have been times when people salute -- sued for property rights. once the tissues are in a hospital, you do not have the property rights. >> there is no adjudicating body. no advisory panel of anybody who could say to the industry, given what we have done and made off of her, we have decided we
will do this for her family. that would never happen? >> there is not one big body that looks over. each institution has their own review boards that look at the different research and there is concern within the scientific research community and a lot of these institutions. if we give them money, it would set precedents. what will we do about the millions whose cells have been used for research? we did not know who a lot of those people are or who made the money. it is a complicated and sticky issue. no one has figured out how to do with that yet. one of the things about their story is the money is one part of the story. it gets sucked up into that issue of who should be profiting. there are other issues. her family was used in research without their consent. they did not know that the cells
had been grown. she had five kids when she died and she died in 1951. to learn more, scientists decided to track down her kids and do research on them. her husband had a third grade education and did not know and he got this phone call one day. the way he understood it was we have your wife and she is alive in a laboratory or part of her and we have been doing research on her for 25 years and we have to test your kids to see if there is cancer. tavis: that is how they found out 20 plus years later. >> her children were around age of 30 and they thought they were going to die and there were getting some kind of treatment which they were not. the scientists never stop to explain. it started decades of scientists coming to the family wanting things and various problems for the family. her medical records were released and published in the
press. there are a lot of these ethical issues that happened to the family. when researchers and institutions talk about doing anything for the family, it always goes back to money and the other stuff is put to the side. >> she was an african-american woman. what do we take from that? what does that mean? >> her story is part of a long history of research on african americans without their consent and in this case, they were doing this to black, white, anyone. it carries a lot of weight in the african-american community. there is this long and painful history. there's a lot of mistrust. this story has long set into that. tavis: what is the timeframe of this as compared to the tuskegee experiment? >> same time. it was toward the end of that.
the study started earlier. one of the things that tied the stories together was when her family found out about the cells, it was when the tuskegee study broke. it sort of was held up as one of the most famous unethical research studies done in the u.s. where hundreds of african- american men with syphilis were set -- studied to watch how the disease kills from infection to death and when treatment became available, they did not offer it. they watched them die without treating them. it -- that study and a lot of similar ones done all the way back to the slavery era caused a lot of mistrust. no one knew that the tuskegee studies had happened until the 1970's. it hit the press and her cells being alive. the press. people wondered, did they not
treat her cancer so the cells would grow? was this another tuskegee? that added to the fear and reaction. >> the netavis:the the new booke immortal life of henrietta lacks". thank you. isabel wilkerson is a professor of journalism at boston university who became the first african-american woman who won a pulitzer prize. heard new text is called "the warmth of other suns", the story of america's great migration. congratulations and an honor to have you on the program. >> thank you. tavis: glad to have you. this is huge. it is "the new york times" best seller huge. everyone is talking about this now. under blind the word now four or
five times. everyone is talking only because you have the discipline and courage to tell the story. a story that is at the epicenter of what america is and america would not be without this migration. it took you to invest 15 years of your life to write the story. i am saying this not to make you blush but because for the importance of this story, to the story of america, it had not been told in this way prior. why has the story been sitting untold for all this time? >> one reason is it began during world war room and one and it lasted until 1970. it went on for a long time. it went on for three generations. the once you started uncovering at or not there at the end. it was hard to grasp what was going on. people kept thinking it was going to end but people kept coming. it is hard to grasp until was
over with. finally, people did not talk about it. that is one of the biggest losses to african-american families. once the left, they turned away from themselves and did not look back and they did not tell their children. they did not want to talk about it. it was too painful what they had gone through in the caste system of the south which was jim crow. >> we're talking about the migration of 6 million african- americans at the time. the migration of 6 million of us from the south to the north. what was the driver, the primary driver or drivers behind that massive migration from the south? >> the primary driver was that for 80 years since 1896 until after the civil rights movement, african-americans were living in a caste system that dictated their every move. there were bound by jim crow
laws which infiltrated every aspect of interaction between blacks and whites. it was against the law in birmingham for a black person and white person to play checkers together. someone sat down and wrote that down. having too much fun and they said we cannot have this. there were black and white ambulances and black-and-white taxicabs and there were black and white bibles. a black bible and a white bible in many courthouses to swear to tell the truth on. tavis: same bibles. >> different bibles. >tavis: one black and one white. >> yes. tavis: is there black bible? i thought there was just one. these 6 million negroes were going to work north? >> that is what i wanted to get a grasp on. it was not one migration.
it was multiple and there are three main ones. one was up the east coast up to washington and the new york. there was a middle one from mississippi, alabama, western georgia up to chicago, detroit, cleveland. that was the middle one. the one that is least known about which i really enjoyed writing about was the one from louisiana and texas to california and the west coast. >> what made you devote so much time and attention to this study? >> i am a daughter of the great migration. the african-american to meet our products of the great migration. it is that massive. many of us owe our existence to the fact that people migrated. my mother migrated to washington, d.c. and my father
migrated from southern virginia. here i am. had it not been for the great migration, i would not exist. the story was not being told from the perspective of the people who live this. we did not know why they left or how they made the decision to leave. what were their lives like? how did they get the courage to leave the place they had never known to leave for an uncertain future, a place that was not a welcoming? how did they make it once they got there? those were the kinds of questions i had and the questions that gave us a sense of how the city's came to be and how so many african-americans ended up in detroit, chicago, los angeles, new york. tavis: after katrina, i was on the air here and i railed every night on this program and everywhere where i appeared talking about katrina. i reeled on the media. i could not stand the media picking up on this term of refugee to refer to these black
men and women who were american citizens. they're not refugees. i said over and over again. it was important to make that point so we would not lose sight of the fact that these people are us. >> i refer to them as immigrants. as having the same kind of immigrant heart and motivation and desires and goals and dreams as any person who might have crossed the eclectic. what i am looking at is the fact that what is propelling them, it is a classic story. how tragic they ended up to far reaches of their own country in order to find freedom that they would have been born to. when i use it, i am using it in a way of a provocative term to get us to think about this differently. they were doing what so many groups of people are lauded for doing. they came to the cities without any backup. they took -- lived in
neighborhoods where they were confined to. they doubled up in homes or apartments or cold water flats and took multiple jobs and made more money often in the aggregate than the people who were there already. they were working hard in order to survive, which is the classic american story and the classic immigrant story. they had to do that within their own country. they were not immigrants. tavis: tell me about ida mae. >> she was terrible at picking cotton. she killed snakes and wring the neck of a chicken but could not pick cotton. her family ended up having to leave because a relative had been beaten to within an inch of his life because he had been accused of a theft he had not committed. the same thing the accused him
of stealing turned up the next day. when her husband found out what had happened to his cousin, he went home to his wife and said, this is the last crop by making. -- i am making. they ended up in chicago for mississippi. for that migration. robert foster was a surgeon who had performed ably and was of distinction in the army but he got out and found he could not practice surgery in his hometown in louisiana. he set out on a course that ended up being more treacherous than he anticipated to get to california. tavis: he ended up being ray charles' doctor. does that say something about the folks who stayed behind, but those who did not go? >> there is a way of looking at them that is also a beautiful.
there were the keepers of the culture. they were the keepers. some would say we need to stay here so you have a place to come back to when you need to. i thought that was beautiful. together, this migration was the precursor to the civil rights movement in many respects. one way because it showed this underpaid, lower level of the caste system of the south. the underpaid workers of the south had an option and were willing to take it. they were willing to act on that option which was to leave. when this began, 90% of african- americans living in the south. by the time it was over, nearly half were living outside the south. there were living from washington, d.c. up to boston and to cleveland and chicago, detroit, all the way to los angeles. anywhere but the south. tavis: the period you're talking
about happens to be america in the king years. it covers part of the king years. one does not think of it that way. when you think of dr. king fighting for justice and equality and the rights of black folk, you think of them in the south. it is fascinating to think that while he was leading this movement, negroes were getting out of the south. >> see have the exposure to the freedom of the north and that was in the early 50's. he met his wife in the north. that even -- there is a connection there between the great migration, he was part of the great migration four times and he went back for that moment of truth in the south. tavis: were there folks like him who escaped the south for whatever reason and felt called back? >> most did not.
most left and the lead for good. some of them changed their name and they did not look back. which is why the story often was not told to succeeding generations and it needs to be. the country needs to be aware of the sacrifice made by the people and the impact. tavis: what is the abiding lesson for black people of this migration? >> i hope it would encourage every family to examine their history. this was a migration that had no leader. it was a leaderless migration. people made decisions based on their heart and this was a story of inspiration that says so much power is within us. those people multiplied by 6 million ended up changing this country. that is an inspiration for anyone of any race but particularly for black families. people need to talk with the
oldest people in their families to find out what are the stories before it is too late. i felt a great urgency because i know people were passing on and i did not have time to get to them. that was a lesson i would be seeing. tavis: now she has a book out that everyone is talking about. "the warmth of other suns". it is a gift to all of us, written by isabel wilkerson. thanks for the book and honored to have you on the show. that is our show. until next time, keep the faith. captioned by the national captioning institute --www.ncicap.org-- >> for more information on today's show, visit tavis smiley at pbs.org tavis: join me next time with lyle lovett.
that is next time. we will see you then. >> all i know is his name is james, and he needs extra help with his reading. >> yes. >> to everyone making a difference -- >> thank you. >> you help us all live better. >> nationwide insurance supports tavis smiley. with every question and every answer, nationwide insurance is proud to join tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment, one conversation at a time. nationwide is on your side. >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. >> be more. >> be more.